ALL THE HISTORIC CHURCHES – Greek, Latin and Syriac – include in their liturgical observance of Christ’s nativity (although on different days) a remembrance of the cruel slaughter of the Holy Innocents, the young boys of Bethlehem and the surrounding area slain on the orders of King Herod the Great. In our calendar December 29 is devoted to commemorating this tragic event.
This episode is described in the Gospel of St Matthew as a result of the visit of the wise men who came seeking the newborn king of the Jews. After King Herod had consulted with the chief priests and scribes, he sent the wise men to Bethlehem “…and said, ‘Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also’” (Matthew 2:8).The wise men found the Child, offered Him their gifts, but “…being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way” (Matthew 2:12).
The Gospel continues: “Then Herod, when he saw that he was deceived by the wise men, was exceedingly angry; and he sent forth and put to death all the male children who were in Bethlehem and in all its districts, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had determined from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying: ‘A voice was heard in Ramah – lamentation, weeping, and great mourning – Rachel weeping for her children refusing to be comforted, because they are no more’” (Matthew 2:16-18).
This passage in Matthew is the only reference in the Scriptures or in other records of the time to the slaughter of these children. This led many in the past two centuries to deny the historical character of the story. Others have pointed out that the tale perfectly reflects the character of Herod. At the beginning of his reign he had executed his second wife Mariamne, her brother and her mother as threats to his reign. In 7 bc Herod killed his own sons Alexander and Aristobolus for the same reason. In 4 bc his son Antipater suffered the same fate. In his Saturnalia the late pagan writer Macrobius (c. 395-423) attributed the following remark on Herod’s reputation to the Emperor Augustus, “It is better to be Herod’s pig than his son.”
One reason why contemporary accounts do not mention the slaughter of the Innocents may be the insignificant number of boys killed. Although later descriptions number these victims in the thousands – one Coptic source refers to 144,000 – scholars today reckon the number to be no more than twenty or thirty, based on the estimated population of the area in the first century. We cannot imagine that the death of two or three dozen children would have attracted attention in an age in which thousands routinely died in earthquakes, invasions and the like.
The Tears of Rachel
Matthew connects the death of the Innocents with “Rachel weeping for her children,” a reference which many today would not readily understand. Rachel, the wife of Jacob, was connected with Bethlehem in Jewish lore. She died giving birth to her son Benjamin “…and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem). And Jacob set a pillar on her grave, which marks Rachel’s grave to this day” (Genesis 35:19-20).
Rachel’s son Benjamin survived, and so Rachel did not weep for him. Rather the verse from Jeremiah quoted in the Gospel refers to Ramah, the area near Rachel’s grave from which in the sixth century bc to which Jews were driven for deportation to Babylon. Rachel “wept” for the children of Israel lost in the Babylonian exile; now she “weeps” for the Innocents.
The Flight into Egypt
The Gospel tells us that, warned in a dream by an angel, Joseph took the Child and His Mother to Egypt, thus escaping Herod’s wrath (see Matthew 2:13-15). By way of commentary, Matthew closes his mention of their stay in Egypt with the words of Hosea 11:1, “Out of Egypt I called My Son.”
Again, there is no other Scriptural mention of the Child Jesus in Egypt. Later writings describe in detail an elaborate itinerary through Gaza and Sinai and along the Nile to Old Cairo where the Lord and His family reputedly lived until the death of Herod. In some versions they are accompanied by St James, the Lord’s Brother; in others by Salome, His midwife. Many of the details of the journey of the Holy Family in Egypt are chronicled in a manuscript by Pope Theophilus of Alexandria (AD 384-412), who is said to have received these details during an apparition of the Holy Virgin. The Coptic Orthodox Church continues to distribute an “official map” marking the places they visited on their journey.
Most famous of the many shrines along this route are the Abu Sergha (St. Sergius) Church and the St Mary’s Church in Old Cairo. A nearby cave is reputedly the place which housed the Infant and His family.
A number of apocryphal writings from later periods describe this journey as a series of miracles wrought as the Lord passed through Egypt. Demons were expelled, the sick healed and idols shattered at the sight of Him. In one of these works, the sixth-century Arabic Gospel of the Infancy of Christ, an idol testifies before falling to the ground, “The unknown God is come, the One who is truly God; nor is there any one besides Him who is worthy of divine worship; for He is truly the Son of God” (Arabic Gospel 4:11).
The New Moses, the New Israel
The passages in Matthew’s Gospel which speak of the slaughter of the Innocents and the flight into Egypt form what the Jews call a Midrash, or homiletic story: here, a kind of commentary on the identity of Christ. He is the King of the Jews, feared by the tyrant Herod but recognized by the Persian sages. He is the new Israel brought out of Egypt. He is the new Moses saved from slaughter as an infant as Moses was (cf., Ex 1:22.). Then He was sent home when the danger was past, as Moses was, “Go, return to Egypt…for all the men who sought your life are dead” (Exodus 4:19, all but reproduced in Matthew 2:20). This prepares us to see the adult Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount as the new Lawgiver, giving added depth to the Law of Moses. Thus in Matthew 5:21 we see Jesus redefine Exodus 20:13 and Deuteronomy 5:17. “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’ But I say to you that whoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment. And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire.”
How much of the story of Christ in Egypt is theological meditation and how much is history? It is certainly prudent to reject the medieval elaborations to the biblical narrative. As to the Gospel core, we can, along with Pope Benedict XVI, accept it as both history and reflection until proven otherwise.